Congress achieved a pandemic relief plan last week, demonstrating how center-out compromise can work.
Donald Trump disengaged from that process, demonstrating his pointlessness. He then tried to blow up the deal after the fact by demanding changes, demonstrating his madness.
This is not about him, but about the glimpse this matter provided of an American politics that could soon be better with adult sanity re-invigorated in Congress and returned to the White House.
If The New York Times and The Washington Post are to be believed on their inside-story narrative recreations, then the political center re-
asserted itself in late November and December.
In complementary pieces Tuesday, the Times and Post described a process that began with a Tuscan-takeout dinner and got celebrated a little more than three weeks later with West Virginia 170-proof moonshine, or at least its availability if not consumption.
Center-left Democrats and center-right Republicans--West Virginia's Joe Manchin, Virginia's Mark Warner, Maine's Susan Collins and Utah's Mitt Romney, among others--gathered the week before Thanksgiving. The purpose was to strategize via socially distanced seating in the open-windowed, and thus virus-resistant and chilly, Capitol Hill living room of Alaska's Lisa Murkowski. They ate Italian food from boxes.
They were frustrated with the polarized extremes of their leadership and the inability to do something so basic as deliver covid relief to Americans as the virus raged.
Romney, ever the efficient businessman type, showed up, the Times said, with an outline of a plan on his iPad.
But, first, Republicans and Democrats got hung up on a number splitting the difference between Nancy Pelosi's top end and Mitch McConnell's bottom.
They were stuck on a trillion or a trillion-four when Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, a veteran generally identified more left than center, announced that he'd been chatting with Joe Biden.
He relayed that Biden, long a senator's senator like his pal John McCain, had been encouraged by the planned formation of the group. Durbin, according to both newspapers, said that Biden had suggested passing merely a short-term plan that would get the price tag under a trillion dollars and tide things over until March to give him a better starting place for further virus relief and stimulus when he takes office.
The group began working with organized focus, mainly by text and Zoom, adding new senators and House members. In a few days, it announced a solid $904 billion proposal.
In a truly democratic and legislative Congress, the centrist senators then could have proceeded to expedited committee hearings, accepted or resisted amendments, and, if getting a favorable committee recommendation, proceeded to the floor for debate, more amendment consideration and debate. They might have passed the bill or they might have gotten close enough to reveal a more passable way.
But, in this Congress, House Speaker Pelosi announced she wanted to use their work as a framework. She and Senate Majority Leader McConnell took the matter wholly unto themselves to debate secretly in behalf of their partisan bases.
McConnell, Pelosi and their designees wound up producing an agreement that was less than the centrists' plan in that it lacked aid for state and local governments but more in that it contained $600 cash payments to all taxpayers.
Typically, all members of Congress were forced to take or leave the near-trillion-dollar dictate without time to read the thousands of pages, much less study them.
The offensive expenditures were not as much in the covid package as the broad spending measure to keep government open to which McConnell and Pelosi found it advisable to attach it tactically.
Separating issues prior to the brinkmanship stage to let them stand on their own ... of that we can merely dream.
Despite the lingering procedural failing, the original centrists found it appropriate to gather in a Senate office building conference room to celebrate that they had managed to leverage policy and action.
Manchin of West Virginia brought a Mason jar containing some of his state's finest moonshine, the Post reported, adding that Romney politely declined.
There is hope--not optimism at present, but hope--that this process could provide a template for the center-driven bipartisan incremental legislation that the voters seem to have called for with the split decision rejecting Trump while reducing the Democratic majority in the House.
Biden rather clearly understands that. His challenge will be resisting pressure to venture more broadly and liberally, mainly coming from one man Vermont elected to the Senate and one woman the Bronx elected to the House.
I have nothing against lovely progressive Vermont or the culturally rich Bronx. I simply don't think the currently prevailing politics of those tiny dots on the map ought to matter much beyond their own elections.
We need to compartmentalize our noisemakers and our policymakers, putting the noisemakers in front of television cameras and the policymakers in open-windowed living rooms with Italian food or moonshine.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.